Pizer’s Companion, Part 4

March 3, 2007 at 7:43 pm Leave a comment

This is the last Pizer post for awhile. Eventually I’ll get back to Pizer and his The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism, which amongst other things, devotes some space to Michaels’ Gold Standard.

For now, I’d like to offer some interesting ideas from Blanche H. Gelfant’s essay, “What More Can Carrie Want? Naturalistic Ways of Consuming Women.” Gelfant reads Tim O’Brien’s character Mary Anne in the short story “Sweetheart of the Song Trabong,” in The Things They Carried, as an extension of Carrie’s consumed/consuming trajectory in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Mary Anne is a conventional American young woman who flies toVietnam to visit her currently serving boyfriend.
“Mary Anne is changed by the Green Berets, who evoke her desire for killing, just as sporty men and fashionable women had evoked Carrie’s desire for clothes and jewelry. Made in Vietnam could be the label on Mary Anne’s new jewelry, a necklace strung with human tongues: ‘Elegant and narrow, like pieces of blackened leather, the tongues have threaded a long length of copper wire, one overlapping the next, the tips curled upwards as if caught in a fatal shrill syllable’ . . . Like Carrie, she ends up the embodiment of the values of her world and, like Carrie, strangely disembodied. Carrie becomes a fiery image, and Mary Anne, burned out by fire, becomes an ominous shadow slipping through the jungle where she is now ‘part of the land'” (186).

“Mary Anne Bell belongs to a new breed of woman personifiedin recent movies and novels by the ‘hard body,’ so called in a 1991 article in New York Magazine entitled ‘Killer Women.’ In such movies as ‘Terminator II,’ these new women emerge as ‘combat trained outlaws’ who establish a ‘new standard of beauty’ by appearing, like Mary Anne, without makeup, jewelry, or fancy clothes. . . . Killer Women sell” (187).

“This trajectory of an American woman consumer, traced with elliptical starkness by two male writers, raises aesthetic, moral, and cultural questions. Does the recurrence of the same deterministic structure of desire in stories set in different times and places point to static elements in human behavior, in the literary forms that represent them, and in the shaping forces of consumerism? Is O’Brien’s Mary Anne a woman wandering in a global village, continuing an itinerary laid out for Dreiser’s Carrie? Chicago, New York, and, eventually, Tra Bong — might this have been Carrie’s progression if ninety years after Sister Carrie, Dreiser were to describe a young desirous woman following her man to Vietnam? There she would encounter a land seemingly beyond the consumer capitalism emerging in Chicago and New York, and yet a land that had become the ultimate site of consumption — and the sight of an ultimate consumption — as it was destroyed and wasted, consumed by the fires of war. Indeed, Baudrillard sees the Vietnam War as an insidiously involuted expression of modern consumer capitalism that functions as a society of the spectacle — to use Debord’s phrase. In this society, as in Carrie’s world, ‘it’s all theatre'” (187-8).

“Mary Anne’s helpless submission to her surroundings dramatizes Dreiser’s dictum that to see is to succumb. Defining the human mind as ‘a mere reflection of sensory impressions,’ and tracing impressions to the ‘flood of things’, Dreiser made an equation between seeing and succumbing irrefragable” (188).

“‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong’ describes its heroine’s blue eyes constantly looking, staring, narrowing, squinting, focusing, and reflecting the world they see by turning jungle-green. The physiological response makes visible the force of stimuli so driving and deterministic that they transform desire into a craving need, and the self into a helpless and atavistically craving creature” (188-9).

“Indeed, the ways of consuming women in naturalistic fiction appear to be static, impervious to the historical changes effected by a seemingly radical change of setting, of time and place. In a Vietnam bush as in burgeoning Chicago, a fixed relationship between stimulus and response determines female behavior and transforms an innocent young American woman, a small-town girl from the Midwest, into a consumer. Her desire, her insatiability, seems synonymous with a sense of lack she finds irradicable. Seeing what others have and she lacks, this unconsummated and consuming woman believes that she must have more, and that having more will allow her to become (as Maslow put it) more and more the person she sees herself capable of becoming. This desire for self-actualization, a culturally inscribed individualistic desire, turns Carrie and Marie Anne into consuming women whose generic similarities should not remain hidden by differences in appearance. A fashionably dressed Broadway star and a camouflaged killer waiting to strike — in either guise, naturalism’s consuming woman glows with a devouring fire. In Sister Carrie, the fiery image of a body that has been consumed with desire appears in an advertisement designed to ignite desire in others. In O’Brien’s story, a burning body becomes the site of consumption as a woman is consumed by what she sees in a land wasted by war. There, as in America’s cities, her fate, like her desire, is determined; in both settings, the place where determinism and desire intersect is the body of a gazing woman. The woman herself is a static figure, arrested in a pattern of desire, but she generates a vortex of forces that flow inexorably toward consumption and death. Men should fear this woman, for a man who gazes upon her may be doomed, as may be those upon whom she gazes” (192).

This connection between two consumed-consumers mirroring their capitalist environment, its desire and death, is suggestive, a model worth interrogating with other naturalist women. Trina McTeague comes readily to mind.

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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, books, capitalism, consumption, Literary Criticism, Pizer, Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser, Tim O'Brien.

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